Saturday, June 25, 2011

My New Classroom

I snuck over to my new school this week and got a first look at my new art room. You can get a real feel for how over-excited about everything I am!

The Year in Review and 10 Things To Do in Tough Work Situations

By now, most of us are enjoying our Summer breaks. It seems those of us in the South go back to school earlier and thus, end the year earlier, than those of you in the North East. As such, I'm about three weeks into my summer vacation. I've blogged a few times about how tumultuous my school year was, but I've never quite gone into specifics. Mainly that is because this is a blog about teaching -not complaining- and my emotions were still swirled up in the ever-constant-unfolding-drama that was this year.

Yet, I find myself wanting to share with you what happened this year for cathartic reasons. . .And also, to know if this is common, and (maybe) to give you a bit of perspective should you even find yourself in a similar circumstance (I pray not).

Here is the bare-bones of my experience this year.

In December I was due to finish my Master's degree. In early November, I had an interview literally "fall" in my lap and was offered an art teaching position at a nearby school. Since my income was 20% less than the state average for a first year teacher and I did not have benefits, I considered the position seriously. Upon encouragement from my professors and mentors, I approached my principal and asked her to if she would be willing to release me from my contract in light of the fact the position I was offered was a $14,000 pay raise.

She flat-out refused (which is her right) citing that since the position was not considered a "promotion" it would be in violation of my contract to release me, and that she could get in trouble with the school's board of directors (which I later found out she lied about as my school didn't have a board of directors). I was, to say the least, quite upset because since the position paid so much more, it indeed felt like a promotion to me. I countered this, and was met with a lot of excuses. This basically upset me to my core, and was to become symbolic of how all of my interactions went down with my principal.

At the end of this meeting my principal full-stop asked me if I would be returning for the next school year. I replied that I had to consider my livelihood and told her that I could only consider returning if my pay was returned to the state average for someone of my experience. She ended the meeting by stating she would pray for me.

My principal had signed on as my "collaborating teacher" for my Master's degree. In fact, she insisted on filling this role and refused to delegate it to anyone else on staff. This role depended on her coming and observing me in my classroom. In four years I was never formally observed in my classroom by my principal and she made up the information on the documents. In December she was slow to turn in the final documents needed for my degree. I kept reminding her about the deadline, and she kept saying that they would be ready soon. On the day the items were due, I still did not have them. I went by her office to check and see if she had them and she said this: "I'll get those documents for you, but it may not be on the time line you want, or in time for your professors."

Honestly, I felt like I was being punished for considering another position. And, I couldn't graduate without those documents, which she knew. I instantly called my lead professor and explained the situation to her. Since I had consistently turned in my paperwork on time, and because my professor had had issues with my principal concerning my Master's degree paperwork previously, my Master's program was able to work something out for me wherein I was not on my Principal's leash. My principal never completed the paperwork.

I graduated and received my Master's degree.

In March, my principal gathered everyone for a faculty meeting in a room we never previously had met in. The room was circumspect because it is the furthest room from anyone or anything else in the school. This meant that parents, who were frequent visitors to our school, could not witness the meeting. At this meeting the founder of the school stood up and made a 45 minute speech about how bad the economy had hurt the school and ended it by saying that he was excited to announce that a buyer for the school building had been found. Once the school building was sold, the school would no longer have any debt.

We, the teachers, were speechless. All of this was news to us, and it was especially surprising since we had just finished building a huge gym and performing arts center the previous school year. The school founder went on to state that a new facility would be found for the school, and that obviously there would most likely be a reduced staff. He finished by stating that we were to stay upbeat for families and students because we were a family.

The next day it was announced in the local paper that our school was in foreclosure and that the "buyer" for the school was the bank. The school founder countered -in his only public statement- that it was "technical foreclosure" and meant good things for the school. I, quite meanly, thought: "As in we have no money."

That day, all hell broke loose. Parents, many of whom had sent their children to my school since pre-kindergarten were outraged. In December, they had been offered a special incentive to re-enrolling their child for the 2011-2012 school year. If they prepaid the 2011-2012 school year tuition in advance, they would receive a discount that -to my understanding- saved them approximately $5,000. Upon the notice of foreclosure all of the prepaid tuition money was "locked" into an account and could not be released until June 10th. Many parents had $10,000 or more locked up in the pre-paid tuition account, and they couldn't get a solid assurance that they would ever see that money again. Additionally, in December, the parents had fund-raised and put in new tile in the school foyer. The parents felt, quite rightly, that the school administration had known they were facing foreclosure and failed to state this to the parents prior to the parents improving the school facility. The school administration continued to ask for money from parents knowing that the school environment for 2011-2012 would not be the same; the parents felt deceived, and they were ANGRY.

It became unclear if the school would have enough committed students and families to financially continue for the 2011-2012 school year. The students, parents, and teachers went from March to June not knowing if the school would continue for the next year.

The parents started an online chatboard wherein they could share news, ideas, and vent about the foreclosure. During this time, it came out that the mortgage for the school building had not been paid in over 2 years. And, as the school was a 501-c3 all of the information about salaries for administrators and boards SHOULD have been public. The salary information is public as that is posted through government websites, but since founder of the school owned several LLCs under various interpretations of the school name, it was hard to figure out this salary information. It did come out that there was no official board of directors other than one person, who -based on vapid gossip- had little to do with the school.

I found the chatboard to be a consistent source of both amusement and stress.

The chatboard was a place of vicious gossip and accusations. There were two camps of parents on the chatboard: those who supported the school continuing, and those were wary and felt deceived. Those who felt deceived and/or desired to question the school used false names and those who supported the school used actual names. Eventually the chatboard became a place wherein one group called the other group "cowards." Finally, as the whole thing made our school look like a bad episode of "Family Feud" it was taken down.

During this time, teachers were scared to death. Most faculty members strongly felt that the likelihood of the school continuing to be very small. In that same vein, we all faced the loss of our jobs in a very tough market. Parents wanted to vent with us, and we were afraid to say anything other than the official school line. . .Yet, the administration demonstrated no loyalties to us either.

Letters were released from various people in leadership positions at this time discouraging teachers and parents alike from contacting lawyers as doing this would cause the loss of monies needed to refund pre-paid tuition and to pay teacher salaries. Lawsuits, quite understandably, were filed anyway.

Once teacher salaries were mentioned all of the faculty began to panic. We asked the administration confirm that we would still receive our summer paychecks. There was a lot of concern that once we had finished the last day of school, that the administration would have no incentive to pay us any longer and would stop. Rather than confirm our pay was safe, the administration used our salaries as a wedge to get parents to continue making their tuition payments. A letter was sent to parents stating that as long as they continued to fulfill their contractual obligations that teachers would be paid.

During one of these meetings, after one teacher voiced some concerns, the principal asked: "Did you get your paycheck today [it was payday]? The teacher affirmed that she had and the principal look relieved and said: "Oh, good."

Yeah, so the faculty was at an all-time high stress level. You can imagine the gossip and lies that spread quickly during this time. The administrators began to expect more and more work out of us in the hopes of keeping parents devoted to the school by demonstrating how involved the teachers were. I had several incredibly tense meetings with administrators in group settings during this time. Honestly, the air was ripe with dissent and it really began to feel like us against them.

Several parents filed lawsuits and I talked to a lawyer myself about protecting my pay. But, I was told -quite rightly- that it was best to "wait and see."

In the midst of this, I very aggressively went after jobs for the following school year. I committed to my path that I would not return. . .And, eventually, altered it that to "under any circumstances." I was offered three positions on the contingency that they could speak to my principal on the phone and confirm my employment. They did not need a reference, they just wanted confirmation. I lost all three of these jobs because my principal kept the following work schedule during this time: She would arrive around 10 a.m. and then leave around 2 p.m. She simply wasn't around.

As you know, I eventually landed a job. As of the last day of school I was one of only two faculty members at my school to have a job lined up for next year. And, we were still unsure if we would be paid for the summer.

The day before the last day of school, the administration formally announced that it planned to continue for the 2011-2012 school year, families would be receiving pre-paid tuition back and that teachers would be paid summer salaries.

Unfortunately, the damage was done. I also went through the school rosters -available through my teacher grade-book as I taught everyone in the school- to see who all was enrolled for the next year. As of the time I looked, 20 students were committed (out of over 300) for the 2011-2012 school year.

I left after post-planning with a sense of distinct relief that I wouldn't have to go back to the school ever again. The doors were formally closed to my school forever on June 15th. The lawsuits, which include punitive damages, are still pending.

Last week, I received a letter in the mail from the presidents of our Parent's Club. The Parent's Club had been disgusted with the school administration from the announcement of the foreclosure. They planned to officially disband at the end of the school year. But, since they were an entity devoted to raising funds for school use, they would have return all money in their account at the end of the year to the school administrators. They did not wish to do this. Enclosed in the incredibly kind letter was a cheque for $100.

And now, it is over.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

1. Do your best in a high-stress situation to avoid gossip. It is SOO tempting, but mostly it made the work environment really toxic.

2. Remember why you are there. I was there because I like teaching. When I focused on the students, no matter how insane the day was, it always improved.

3. Band together. Instead of looking on your least favorite co-workers with disdain, find a way to work together. You, ideally, should be doing this anyway. But, it makes a huge difference to feel like you are "in it together."

4. Never underestimate parents. I had parents come out of the woodwork to help me pack my room, offer support, and help out. They really did try to understand what the teachers were going through and wanted to help.

5. Don't complain about work on Facebook (at least in an obvious manner). That, my friend, is a dangerous thing to do!

6. If there is a chatboard. . .Don't read it; be above it. I wish I had never read some of the hurtful comments on that thing. It raised my blood pressure and made me think less of many people I genuinely had previously respected.

7. Be polite but distant from your administration. Do what your told, and keep your head down -when you can.

8. Be active with the students; volunteer. The parents will appreciate that you are still a professional in a tough situation. I've recently found out about several former coworkers who are working for businesses student families own. The parents were impressed with them.

9. Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. There is asshole, and then there is assertive. I was really surprised at how my many of my coworkers were afraid to ask my administration questions. You many not like the answers, and should be prepared to be polite about that, but you still have the right to politely ask. I'm all for keeping distant -see above- but when you have a question -ASK. Asking is SO much better than speculative gossip. I never once had a "bad" meeting with my administration because I asked a question.

10. Attitude is EVERYTHING. You have to be positive or it will really be miserable.

And, as for #10, I have many of you to thank for that! Your kind comments and thoughts really shored me up. Simply knowing that there is a community of art educators out there makes me feel good.

Thanks Y'all!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Summer Series #1: School Should be Fun(ner)

I'm motivated by fun. If it isn't fun, I'm not terribly interested in doing it.

Laundry? Not fun. Cleaning? Not fun. Nonprofit paperwork? Not fun. Playing with my dog? Fun. Reading? Fun. Making Art? Fun. Results from Nonprofit paperwork? Fun.

When I need to do something that isn't fun, I always attempt to make it fun and/or give myself a fun incentive. For instance, I will tell myself that once the house is clean I will curl up with a book etc. etc. I know you do this, or something similar, as well.

Honestly, as educators, we all probably find learning and researching fun to some degree or another. I mean, why else would we spend so much time doing it? One of the issues I see for us in classroom is that we enjoy learning quite a bit. We all liked school so much that we went on to get college degrees (and even further). And, then, when we still didn't get enough school, we decided to become teachers and thereby make school a major part of our adult lives. The awesomeness of summer vacation notwithstanding, you stay with teaching because you believe in education and school. The issue for us as classroom teachers is that very few of our students love school in the same manner.

Have you ever wondered why school is represented as a place of negative, boring, mind-numbing thoughtlessness in the most popular children's cartoons and children's tv series? It is because above and across the board children -and the adults they grow up to be- believe school sucks. School was not a fun place for them; it was something they endured.

As educators, we are setting ourselves up for failure if we do not acknowledge and plan around this very simple fact.

School needs to be fun.

If you read here regularly, you know I have been fortunate enough to visit Kenya twice. During both of my visits once someone realized I am a teacher the inevitable comment would be made: "You should teach here. The children are so excited to be in school, not like in America." Well, yes, almost all the children I met in Kenya are either proud to be in school, or are looking for a sponsor to put them in school. The educational system in Kenya is very behind in terms of organization and equity. It is only in the past three years that free primary education (up to grade 5 equivalent) has been offered.

When a child's choice is to stay at home and keep house in a mud hut or to go to school and have the possibility of obtaining more for himself/herself than his/her parents, that is a major motivation. To students in Kenya, school IS fun. School -with 60 children to a classroom, textbooks with no pictures, and exceptionally demanding teachers with corporal punishment- is fun because it is much more stimulating than hanging around their homestead.

School is fun to Kenyan students much in the same way school was fun to American settlers: it is a pleasant diversion from the hard manual labor of day-to-day survival. It is fun.

American students are much more sophisticated than students living in third world conditions. They have televisions, quick transportation to friends, extracurricular activities, community centers, organized sports, access to computers, the internet, smart phones. . . . Essentially, they have constant stimulation of their own preference for a large portion of the day.

Personally speaking, if I had a choice between doing what I want to do all day (including having near constant access to stimulating visual information via gaming, internet, and TV) and sitting still in a desk listening to someone lecture me and/or doing written work, I know my answer would be consistent: Let me at the fun!

I've spoken here before about how neurologically speaking, the brain is set to avoid boring situations. If we, as humans, become bored enough, the fear centers of our brains are triggered and release powerful chemicals. Essentially, what this means is that if we become too bored, we become afraid of being in that boring situation again, and as such, avoid it like the plague. Think back on your life; is there a boring situation you fear (mine is babysitting btw)?

There are always naysayers about the classroom being fun. . .And they point out that learning is important and "not everything in life is fun." And, they are 100% correct, and they are right to warn everyone that students will need to learn about how to deal with boredom and self-motivation. Yet, I cannot help but feel that the world is going to consistently force our students to become self-motivated and skilled at dealing with boredom. The DMV, if nothing else, is a perfect example of this.

Our responsibility, as educators, is to teach our students about a subject, to create life-long learners, and to develop character traits that will help our students become the most successful adults they can be (and there are many definitions of success). And, to do this, we need to trigger the "fun" centers of the brain.

Just as the brain can log boring situations as "fearsome places," the brain can too log stimulating situations as "fun." When you are having fun, your brain releases serotonin, and we are all -to some degree or another- addicted to serotonin and to fun. We seek out fun situations more than we seek out anything else.

Our classrooms and our very selves need to be associated with fun for our students.

But, as educators how do we do this? We are not all fun people. We are not all designed to be the coolest teacher ever. For some of us, lecturing and learning that way IS fun. How can we as "lovers of the lecture" diversify for our students?

I have my own thoughts about this and have listed them below. . .But, what are YOUR thoughts? I'm intrigued to know how you create a fun learning atmosphere and how this keeps your kids excited about your learning environment!

My thoughts:

1. Think on your classroom. Think about YOUR students. Based on what you know about what they like is your classroom and environment a place in which they would have interest? How can you add/subtract from your classroom to better suit the interests -and still serve your subject- of your students?

2. Do you act like you truly care about your students as individuals? I've known teachers who are actually quite timid and very traditional in their teaching styles who are enormously popular and thereby interesting and fun to his/her students. The reason? The kids love them because they feel loved in return. It is amazing what a little bit of care can do.

3. What is your teaching style like? In what ways can you enhance your natural skills to become more engaging and interesting to your students? I think it is a mistake to try and be more outgoing when you are not. Instead, work with what you have. For example, I was once struggling to garner respect -and thereby some level of interest- in a group of high school students. Finally one day, I broke down and showed them my art portfolio. Sharing that part of myself -and still maintaining professional distance- earned me HUGE brownie points.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hello Kenyan Friends!

This blog had some visitors today from Nairobi. I do have some friends and family currently doing educational work in and around Nairobi and other parts of Kenya right now. . .

So, if you are new-to-me-Kenyan, a Kenya friend, or one of my visiting friends and family: Hello! And, I miss you!!

Did You Receive Lesson Plans?

I've sent off compressed, zip files of Lesson Plans to our lucky winner and to those of you who requested the sample set of 20 (or so) LPs. A few of you indicated you wished to receive the LPs, but I did not receive an email address from you. . .

Ms. Walsh
Becca Ruth

If you DO want the LPs, if you could please drop me an email, and I'll send to you ASAP ( Also, if I accidentally missed your email and/or request for LPs, please let me know.

And, while I do *adore*sharing I ask that you please do not make an initial request for LPs at this time. I'm trying to make sure I honor my obligations to folks who made original comments on my job query postings etc. etc. I do promise that there will be AMPLE opportunity in the near future for LPs!

Thanks Everyone!